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Evaluating Aston Villa’s promotion chances entering 2017

A promotion play-off win isn’t the most likely cap to Villa’s first Championship campaign, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dream as the new year starts.

Aston Villa v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Luke Ayling of Leeds United and Leandro Bacuna of Aston Villa in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Leeds United at Villa Park on December 29, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Mercifully, the year that saw Aston Villa’s first relegation in nearly three decades is over. Goodbye, 2016. Between that relegation and the early-season slide that’s kept Villa out of the top six all year in the Championship, you won’t be missed much ’round these parts.

Luckily, 2017 gets off to a quick start for the Villa, as the club travel to Cardiff tomorrow for our opening fixture of the calendar year. The start of the new year also welcomes the opening of the January transfer window, an opportunity for Villa to fix the problem areas in search of a promotion push.

But as we enter this new year with a “feel good” atmosphere around Villa Park — the Claret and Blues still haven’t lost at home and are averaging nearly 2 points per match under Steve Bruce — should we stay grounded about Villa’s chances of promotion or get carried away with dreams of a play-off final at Wembley?

A bit of both, probably.

Let’s start by evaluate the betting markets, most of which have Villa on 6-to-1 odds to go up, odds that give an implied promotion probability of 14.3%. We do, however, have to make a slight adjustment for the fact that bookies try to ensure themselves a profit (if you sum the whole division’s promotion chances, they’ll be greater than the 300% they should be), so let’s call Villa’s “true” implied promotion probability 12.5%, or a 1-in-8 chance.

Instinctively, this implied probability might feel a little low. Villa are playing good football, have a proven manager and are, on talent alone, probably one of the division’s seven best sides. With funds hopefully available for Bruce this window, Villa may end up clearly one of the league’s six best sides.

But on second thought, those chances might be fairly accurate.

Let’s assume three things to make our calculations easier:
(1) That Villa would have a 25% chance of winning the play-off
(2) That Villa are expected to play at the pace they have under Bruce
(3) It will take 75 points to finish in the top six

Tackling (2) first, if Villa play at the same pace they have under Bruce, they’ll finish on 77 points. Roughly, I’d say that expected pace assumption puts Villa around a 60% chance of hitting 75 points and, thus, play-off qualification. Combining that with the 25% chance of winning the play-off, and you’re looking at around a 15% chance of promotion — not too far out of line with the bookies’ odds.

But we really aren’t considering the effects of a semi-prolonged run of poor form here. The pace Villa are on under Bruce (25 points in 13 matches) is a pretty high one, typically good enough for automatic promotion over the course of a full season. I think it’s more likely than not that Villa underperform this pace a bit between now and the end of the season, so a 50/50 shot at hitting sixth place isn’t too far fetched.

If we instead look at the race to the play-off as “needing to catch four teams,” not “needing to hit a point target,” we might get different results. As Villa sit 10th in the Championship table at this juncture, they’ll need to pass four teams ahead of them — and not get passed by anyone behind them — before the season ends to reach the play-offs.

We should assume that, in this scenario, Villa will catch and pass Fulham (one point ahead) and Barnsley (level on points) before season’s end; I don’t see a scenario where Villa and one of these clubs — or Birmingham City, Norwich City or any other team currently behind them — both make the play-off.

That still leaves two teams to chase down, which really isn’t such a ludicrous thought; a couple sides will slide back towards Villa, leaving a window to jump above them and into sixth.

So, where do we land? There’s certainly a path, through either viewpoint, for Villa to finish in the top six and win the promotion play-off. But it has to be admitted that, more likely than not, the club will be playing another season in the Championship. Given our start to this campaign, that’s quite fine.

While we’ve gotten used to playing “six-pointers” at Villa over the last few years, 2017 promises to offer a different kind of race: a promotion one. Instead of worrying about who’ll lose the least, we’re playing to see who wins the most. Instead of trying to grind out draws against the “top” sides, Villa will be the club trying to take it to minnows home and away.

Over the next few months, we’ll see Villa get big wins, we’ll keep one eye on results from the rest of the division and we’ll see the club compete for something worthwhile, not trying to avoid something terrible. There’ll be ups and downs and, when it’s all set and done, we’ll probably finish the season at a bottom, preparing for a second season in the second division.

But let’s enjoy that ride. And hell, maybe we’ll close May winning promotion at Wembley. Someone has to do it… why not us?